Sheldon Kirshner

The Polish Woman

The white slavery trade in the early 20th century robbed thousands of Polish Jewish women of their dignity, freedom and self-worth. Thousands were lured to Brazil and Argentina on the false pretence that they would have a far better life abroad, only to discover to their bitter anguish that they had been tricked and assigned to bordellos.

Joao Jardim’s Brazilian feature film, The Polish Woman delves into this rough terrain honestly and with sensitivity. It will be screened on June 5 at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, which runs from May 30 until June 9.

The main character, Rebecca Shein, arrives in Rio de Janeiro as an immigrant expecting to meet her husband at the port. Much to her sorrow, he died before she landed in Brazil with her son Joseph.

She is now in a desperate situation. As a local policeman warns her, she will be deported back to Poland unless she can support herself and Joseph. Salvation comes in the form of a middle-aged Jewish man named Tzvi, who happens to be in the police station when she is there. He offers her a job. Little does she know that Tzvi is a sex trafficker and a pimp working with the corrupt police department.

Discovering that her place of employment is a bordello, she feels conned, trapped and frightened. She leaves in haste.

This 120-minute film, starring a cast of Brazilian actors who deliver their lines in Portuguese, Yiddish and Hebrew, offers a taste of early 1900s Rio through the lens of atmospheric vintage footage that brings this South American city to life.

Returning to the bordello after finding that her job prospects are extremely dim, she offers to cook and clean rather than service the sexual desires of its clients. Tzvi rejects her proposal, claiming that prostitution will be a “new adventure” for her.

The venal sheriff who originally interrogated her becomes her first, albeit non-paying, customer. When the resists his advances, he tries to rape her.

She leaves the bordello once again, but after Joseph disappears, she is led to believe by Tzvi’s assistant that he is safe in his custody. Forced to return to the job she despises, Rebecca is auctioned off to the highest bidder.

Tzvi comes on to her and offers to be her boyfriend, but she is disgusted by his crude manners. Joseph, on the other hand, is fond of Tzvi and refers to him as uncle.

Again and again, Tzvi attempts to convince Rebecca to consider his offer, but she is definitely not interested. Indeed, she and another prostitute rummage through his office drawers to find incriminating documents that expose him as a criminal.

Tzvi, having been summarily arrested, is informed by the sheriff that he can only elude prison time if he agrees to share half of his profits.

In a final attempt to woo Rebecca, Tzvi assures her he would make a fine husband and an attentive father. His soothing words have no effect on her. She is determined to bury her bordello experience once and for all.

Violence ensues and people are killed, but Rebecca and Joseph survive, hoping to fulfill the promise of a renewed life in the new world.

About the Author
Sheldon Kirshner is a journalist in Toronto. He writes at his online journal,